Why look at process first, and then last
19 August 2020
Tylenol may dampen our fever, but what caused the spike?
We often see symptoms as problems and we focus on those symptoms instead of solving problems that cause those symptoms. No wonder – it’s hard work untangling root causes.
In business we tend to chase symptoms in our attempts to improve things such as efficiency, profitability, and market share. So we focus on how to change a metric instead of focusing on what affects that metric. As an example, it is natural for us to consider what the best practices in vacation and sick leave policy are when we encounter trouble in employee attendance. What are the most affordable carrots and most fearsome sticks? Executives may call meetings, someone may draft a report, and then . . . the dreaded Powerpoint.1If the Employee Attendance Program PowerPoint has the wrong font, it may cause the business’s delivery trucks to catch fire or short circuit the cafeteria coffee maker.
Focus on the root
In my experience, there is at least one root problem that creates most symptoms, and all the policy or process in the world doesn’t substitute for changing the source of that symptom.
Let’s use our employees’ attendance as an example. Punishment and reward seem to be simple and direct methods of ensuring that people are at their desks promptly and for the entire day. It is, after all, a job, and employees trade their time and effort for money according to an agreed scale. At first glance, it seems logical to enforce that agreement with rewards and punishments for adherence or transgressions: an extra day of vacation time for perfect quarterly attendance, or docking pay for tardiness.2Punishments, rewards, rules, etc: they are all some sort of process.
However, both human beings and businesses are complex organisms, and how and why people behave and choose is not a simple matter that a policy or process can fully control. We’re simply not rational all the time, and a collection of irrational creatures is certainly not any less complex.
How all of us act
Think of your own behavior at work, all the decisions you make or defer, and what motivates or scares you. (Not your justifications or explanations.) Not all of our behavior is “by the book” outside of work either – we are influenced (sometimes ruled) by our environment and our culture. We obey or disregard some rules less and others more: Do you fully stop your car for two seconds at every stop sign, every time? Do you obey the speed limit? Do you drive on the correct side of the road?3Regularly switching back and forth between driving on the left and driving on the right made me realize that some traffic rules are more equal than others. It also made my back feel better.
Our culture and environment influences our behavior and decisions – this is true for all of us. Yes, people differ in behavior and choice, and our motivations and hindrances are complex, but our culture drives and limits our behavior.
Leadership – how a leader behaves, what he or she chooses, and his or her values – is fundamental in the development of business culture. It affects how people in the business act, and ultimately how those collective actions allow or hinder business achievements.
In our example, a problem with employee attendance (and therefore business performance) is almost always connected to the values and behavior of leadership. A business who attracts and keeps employees, while it may not have perfect policies and processes, undoubtedly has a time-for-money trade that works on a basic level, but the values and example of leadership is probably the root of the employee contract performing in such a way that it affects results.
First, then last
Noting policy and process comes first: a poorly working process is the canary in the coal mine, a poor result, an internal conflict, reveals that there is a challenge to address. If we improve leadership to address the problem, then we can fine-tune process and policy to get the most out of the successful work environment.
So the failing process comes first as an indication of the need for improvement, the work will necessarily include leadership, and then, at last, we can address the details of the process to fine-tune how to make it work best.
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